Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ancestry.com SSDI Citation Review

First let me say that I believe there may be more than one right citation in many instances. It’s been said that “citation is an art, not a science.”1 It depends on what the researcher wishes to emphasize and how the researcher has organized the bibliography. As we saw last week, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch apply a number of treatments to the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF) before publication, adding and removing information, and possibly introducing errors. Since their Social Security Death Index (SSDI) collections are not verbatim copies of the Death Master File, the citation should emphasizes its derivative nature.

Here are the citations that I think Ancestry.com should provide with records from its Social Security Death Index (replacing the accessed date and the DMF publication date):

How to Cite This Record (full reference note):
     1.  “Social Security Death Index,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 July 2011), entry for Donald N. Sider, 322-26-3895; derived from U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, 24 July 2011).

How to Cite This Record (shortened reference note):
     2.  “Social Security Death Index,” Ancestry.com, entry for Donald N. Sider, 322-26-3895.

How to Cite This Collection (Bibliography):
“Social Security Death Index.” Database. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com : 2011. Derived from: U.S. Social Security Administration. Death Master File. Database. Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, 24 July 2011.

At the time of this review, here are the citations Ancestry.com supplies with individual records:

Ancestry.com citations

Reference Note

What is this thing they call a “Source Citation?” It lacks the most basic elements of a citation: title, author, and publisher. Perhaps Ancestry.com is stuck in the outdated PAF citation paradigm, as this appears to be a stripped down set of the citation elements not present in a source list (bibliography) citation. Modern genealogy programs have replaced the PAF paradigm with a standard we all learned in school: reference notes and bibliography.

Regardless, I fail to see the value of including “issue state” and “issue date.” These are derived fields, subject to error, and I can’t see how they would help anyone locate the cited record.

While not strictly necessary, I included the deceased’s name in my citation. I do so for a couple of reasons. Sometimes citations over-specify information to guard against typographical errors or unforeseen circumstances. Publishers regularly do stupid things like failing to allow searching by social security number. (I won’t mention any names, but their initials are w, w, w, and FamilySearch.)

Bibliography/Source List

Interesting that the thing they label a “citation” is not and the thing they don’t label a citation, is. I can tell from the punctuation that what Ancestry.com calls “Source Information” is, in fact, a source list (bibliography) citation. Because Ancestry.com fails to label it as such, users will have a hard time knowing whether to use it as a reference note or a source list entry.

Perhaps the biggest blunder, Ancestry.com has treated the record collection like a published book. That violates a citation principle that I haven’t written about yet. Websites should be cited like books and parts of websites should be cited like parts of books. I’ll write about that soon in my citation principles series and explain why.

A less serious problem is their use of “[database on-line].” It is not Mills standard and it is not the latest Chicago/Turabian standard. When people pay you money, you are obligated to stay up to date.

On the positive side, I liked their inclusion of the source-of-the-source in their source list citation. I liked it so much, I went back and added it to mine.

Score Card

Here’s a summary of Ancestry.com’s conformance to “Citation Principles for Genealogy Record Publishers.”

Requirement Meets Requirement?
Citations meet professional standards No. The reference note citation lacks author, title, publication, etc. The source list citation mishandles the collection and website.
Provides citations for published collections Maybe. It does have one. But it is mislabeled (“Source Information”) and does not meet professional standards. Should I score this as a “yes” or a “no”?
Provides citations for individual records No. “Source Citation” does not qualify.
Citations to published collections distinguished from citations to collection sources Yes. “Original data” serves this purpose.
Citations indicate source-of-the source Yes. Ditto.
Record citations contain information necessary to locate the cited records Yes. The social security number is sufficient and it is present.
Record citations contain information necessary to locate archive originals Yes. Same.
Reference notes and Source list entries are labeled accordingly No.

Ancestry.com’s score: 4 yeses, 3 nos, and a maybe.

Next time, FamilySearch.org SSDI citations.


     1.  Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 1st ed., PDF images (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007), 41.


  1. Speaking of . . . "I fail to see the value of including . . " I would be interested in your explanation of including the date you viewed the internet record. Surely such a reference would only have meaning if the internet record actually displays a publication or last updated date.


  2. I'm having a problem applying your recommendations for citing SSDI as a source. The SSDI is available on several web sites. In addition to Ancestry, I frequently use the Rootsweb site (http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi)because I find that search engine more effective. That is also a non-subscription site. I think it is useful to include the SSA description, but I don't even keep track of which website I found the information on.


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